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Letters I

from the fountain pen of Grace H. Fisher

To the Reader:

About a year ago, I bought a desk at an estate auction. It was a gorgeous mahogany lady’s writing desk, and it was sold with its contents apparently intact. Among the things in the desk was a silver-filigree Waterman’s Ideal No. 452 fountain pen, engraved with the name Stephen J. Henderson and made by the L. E. Waterman Company in about 1915.

Fountain pen image

I was intrigued. I was born Grace Banfield Henderson, and there is a Stephen J. Henderson in my family tree. I decided on a whim to see if I could ascertain whether the pen might have belonged to my ancestor. I began by looking through my own jumble of family papers, and when I came across a letter that strongly suggested the relationship, I got serious. My research eventually led me on a quest that took me to Europe and back again, following a trail of letters. Researching the letters’ addresses and return addresses forward and backward, to establish an unbroken chain from 1915 until today, was an arduous connect-the-dots effort; but it has borne fruit, in more ways than one.

I found that the pen’s original owner was indeed my ancestor, and this pleases me.

But I also discovered another history, one that turned out to be far more interesting, in a way, than my own family tree. I met dozens of people in my travels, and I came home with about a hundred more letters. One of the people I met, quite incidentally, was Donal Higgins. When I related my tale to him, he asked if I would allow him to publish it here on Pentrace, and I agreed. From among the letters I brought home, I have selected eleven for publication. As you read them, you will come to realize my reason for choosing these particular missives. I hope your journey through time will be as fascinating as mine has been.

  Grace H. Fisher, January 2002

Stephen J. Henderson to Grace B. Henderson

  New York City
  May 1, 1915

Dear Grace,

As I sit here this morning preparing to depart, I wonder whether I shall have time enough in England to do even half of what I’ve planned — or, perhaps more correctly, all that has been planned for me. Business, of course, must take precedence, and I have assured Mr. Ryder that I shall bend every effort to securing this contract. Still, given the interminable meetings, the leisurely way these people have of conducting business even in the midst of a war, it will probably occupy the whole of several very full but not precisely scintillating days. Yes, I know, I must remember not to evince my Yankee impatience.

I have done my best to make a presentable appearance. Yesterday, I went shopping; I bought a new pair of shoes, two cravats, a watch chain, and the pen with which I am writing this letter. It’s a Waterman’s, and I found it at the stationery counter in Macy’s. I would have liked to have you with me, my darling Mrs. Henderson, as I’m sure your sharp eye would have chosen better ties; but what I have will, I think, serve well enough.

If I succeed in my mission with any time left over, I shall make a quick dash to Fortnum & Mason for some of their famous teas, and then do my best to ride down to Somerset and make inquiries about the Banfield family to aid you in piecing together more of your genealogy. Mr. Hubert, one of the English directors with whom I am to meet, is from the city of Wells, and he has assured me that the name is well known (perhaps too well known!) in that area. I will, of course, be sure to look for the old Bampfylde spelling, too. Should I succeed in this mission also, you may assume that I will demand an appropriate reward upon my return.

As you may well expect, I am looking forward to this trip with keen anticipation. I’ve not been in England for more than two years, and I shall doubtless be quite the rubbernecker as I try to see everything that has changed. If they have as many automobiles in London as I’ve seen here in New York, I’ll have to stay alert to avoid being run down.

The weather is beautiful, it promises a smooth sail, and despite being almost ten years old now, the Lusitania is an excellent ship. Her engines were rebuilt only two years ago, and she is very elegantly fitted out. She’s still one of the most sumptuous ships afloat although of course not so fine or fast as the Olympic, or as the Britannic would have been had the decision not been made to convert her into a hospital ship. Perhaps after the war is over, they will reconvert her for merchant service. In any case, I met with Mr. Ryder Thursday and was presented with a most pleasant surprise in the form of a first-class ticket; I had expected to travel in second class. What’s more, a note was handed in at the desk yesterday, requesting my presence at the captain’s table for dinner tonight. I’m told that Captain Turner is a sober and capable officer, which is good given the U-boat threat, but that he’s quite the genial “chap” when he’s off duty. As you can imagine, I’m feeing pretty cocky and prosperous. I shall of course tell you all about it when I return.

There is an hour yet before I can reasonably go aboard, and there is nothing to do in the Cunard shed at Pier 54 except sit in an uncomfortable chair and read. I dislike to alarm you with war talk, but I really need to put my thoughts of the past few days in order by sharing them with someone.

The papers all say that President Wilson continues to insist that America must not take sides in the European war, but I am mindful of Mr. Roosevelt’s frank outspokenness against Germany. There are so many reports of the Germans’ inhuman actions on both fronts. You’ll recall that their Zeppelins dropped bombs on English cities last year, and there’s more. Last night at dinner I met the Reverend Mr. Johnson, a Lutheran minister just home from Asia Minor. He and other missionaries there are saying that the Germans are widely believed to be the moving force behind the continuing atrocities against Turkey’s Armenian Christian population. If something is not done, I think, the Armenian Christians, if not the whole Armenian population, may be for all practical purposes exterminated.

But the worst horrors, I fear, may be yet to come. The Times reported this past Tuesday that the Germans have made a second push at Ypres, in Belgium, and that they released poisonous gas there against the French on the 22nd. They succeeded in capturing the Passchendaele Ridge, and they are now in a position to strike for Calais or Boulogne, or both. If they should actually make such a move, and succeed at it, the Allies could lose two major seaports and the critical supply lines that those seaports represent.

I do not believe that the Central Powers are the right side to win this war. I think that America had better act, and act decisively on the side of the Allies. But how to convince anyone in Washington? And whom could we send? Our army is woefully unprepared.

There, now, that’s more than I had intended to say. Take care of the children, don’t forget to pay Mrs. Appleton next Friday, and I’ll be back home early in June. As soon as I know the exact date of my departure from Southampton, I’ll send a cable.

  With love,

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